My brother sent me a visual challenge the other day, texting me the photo you see accompanying this post and asking me to name the location. Well though I’ve not been to this location in over 30 years, I recognize it immediately: Arnold Park, decked out in all of its autumn glory.
I admit, my heart tugged hard at the sight of this. You tell me why this past year has been characterized by a much greater homesickness than in previous years; it just has (I am older, I live far from home, I welcome with passion every hard such feeling). This past summer I literally ached over thoughts of Rehoboth Beach, my family’s vacation home since 1975. There’s a “beach cam” set up on one of the hotels along the boardwalk that offers a shot of the boardwalk and ocean. I looked at it daily. I needed to. I’d gaze upon the people shown lounging on the beach or walking the boardwalk. It felt a little like playing God, as my sense for their experiences was one of omniscience (what about any of their experiences right there, just then, could I not possibly know perfectly well?). I melded with their five senses, I entered whole heartedly their emotional space.
Back to Arnold Park. This innocent shot is loaded with meaning for me—I’m not sure Mark could have sent me a more relevant photo just now. Everything about this photo screams of the fall season, and nowhere back home did I experience more youthful joy than here at this park (thoughts of those times being so vibrant the mind slips helplessly to the present mode in describing them). Fall back east is what you’d expect—the colors, the bite in the air, is football, and Arnold Park was all these things, being where I experienced four glorious years as a participant in the Vestal Youth Football League. Glorious despite the fact, it’s worth noting, that I never played on a winning team any of those years (being its own gift, teaching me early on the victory of commitment and effort despite outcomes). I met so many guys there and then who went on to become lifelong friends—Mike Olsen, John Kintner, Tom Cappellett, and Ken Wilson, to name just a few. In an effort to feed the time traveling dog that is Facebook (you let it out of your house in the morning and it comes back later delivering some slice of your past at your feet), not long ago I posted a number of my VYFL team photos and, in so doing, realized that Greg LaFrance and I pretty much played on the same team every year. EVERY guy I grew up with played in the VYFL, it seems, and in these photos we’re all there, a gorgeous cross-section of my class and the ones a year ahead and behind ours.
I think of the magic of The Cider House this time of year, where apples and children enter and out come cider, candy covered apples, and cries of laughter.
I think of sweaters and coats, scarves and gloves, and using the chill as an excuse to press in closer to that girl with whom I share a crush as we pretend to watch the varsity football squad play on a Friday night, our thoughts altogether closer and on more immediate matters than the field bathed in lights before us.
I think of my father and his annual exercise with my brother and I to rake up the thick layer of leaves that blanket our yard. Oh, how I detest having to do this, knowing that somewhere mere blocks away games of street football or hockey are playing out without me! Oh, how endlessly grateful I am he makes us do this, that I will sit and savor every bit of those times together some future day.
I think of these leaves, these piles, which grow to small mountains with each tug of the rake, until their swollen size becomes too much an effrontery to my brother and I thus demanding that we attack the bastards, plunging our way into their depths, our nostrils filling with their autumn musk. At which point we naturally turn on each other and the hand to hand combat begins, fistfuls of leaves being hurled back and forth, until closer combat still takes over and we begin stuffing them down each other’s clothing, the battle drawing to a close not until the two boys have fully morphed into otherworldly scarecrows, their truce marked by the ceremonial shared fall back and into the piles.
And then there’s the big Remember, fall’s own delirious, diabolical crescendo, the Night of nights of my youth—HALLOWEEN. NOTHING outranked Halloween in urgency and importance back when I was a mere innocent looking to shuck that status for a few good, nocturnal hours. The planning and development of the costume, the determining of the tribe, the map routing, and then the execution. God bless our neighborhoods, they were absolutely IDEAL for this event, so many houses stitched so closely together—the Japanese themselves would have envied our efficiency. All the build up, and then at last we were out there, cut loose, marauders with dials set to full pillage. We were ravenous, we were relentless, we came, we saw, we took your candy (and yes, of course, being sure to say thank you at every door). We didn’t walk the ten yards between houses—buddy, we sprinted it.
Was best of all the fact that we were so utterly free this night, not an adult to be seen out in the streets (being home defending their property, buying peace with proffered candy)? I only notice that fact now, given the Secret Service-like ubiquity of parents hovering near their Presidential children, protecting them from…who? Other parents? To us, parentlessness on Halloween wasn’t exceptional—it was righteously ordained. Those sad few urchins back then encumbered by their insistent parent. I bet they came home only with bags of apples.
No, I’ll tell you what my favorite aspect of back then (after the candy booty itself, of course), something you may overlook in your own memories but will recognize instantly: it was the fact that this night had an actual soundtrack to it that filled the night air. Do you remember it? Of course—it was that Disney album, Chilling, Thrilling Sounds of the Haunted House. If you grew up in Vestal in the 70s, you absolutely remember the blustering winds, cats’ cries, dogs’ moans, and sounds of a ship creaking and crashing onto the rocks that emerged from this record. SUCH a value add to this night, and a deeply felt thank you to every family that took the time to position a turntable near a window to make that effect happen.
This past week here in the bay area we had meteorologically what amounts to our best approximation of eastern fall weather. It was overcast, the wind was blustery, scud clouds passed low overhead. Those of us who know eastern falls commented on it, though only half-heartedly, quickly slipping into talk of all that was missing. No bite to the temperature, only a bit of the gaudy colors among the trees. Who doesn’t love fall? I miss everything about you, my beloved.